Jeff Wilkins and Larry Mcshane for the New York Daily News: The wrapping on Cassy Rivera's Christmas present was totally non traditional this year: white gauze, layered over a sterile eye patch.
After the bandage came off, the Brooklyn woman blinded two years ago by a rare disease was thrilled by the gift of a lifetime -- the sight of her two daughters' beaming faces.
"I don't want anything for Christmas," the 36-year-old mother said yesterday. "Nothing will ever top this. It's better than anything in the world.
"It was beautiful."
For Rivera, her eyesight -- restored by a risky two-hour surgery -- was a holiday miracle.
An aggressive illness called uveitis had stolen her vision, a painful reality that seemed irreversible.
The timing was even worse: Rivera lost her last bit of sight while delivering daughter Aniahya, now almost 2 years old.
The mother missed the first smile on the little girl's tiny lips, the bright sparkle of her newborn's eyes.
"It was the worst thing," Rivera said. "I couldn't see my child grow up....I could listen and smell her and hear her, but I did not have the pleasure of seeing my daughter."
Her older child, 7-year-old Alayza, desperately wanted her mother's sight restored for Christmas -- even at the expense of her own presents.
"I told all my friends, I told my teachers, I told my principal that I'd give up all my toys so my mom could see," Alayza said.
Rivera first experienced blurriness in her right eye back in May 2005. Within a year, the problem spread to her left eye and she was soon legally blind.
By the time Aniahya was born in January 2008, Rivera was unemployed and sightless. The divorced mom heard about the surgery to fix her eyes -- and learned it would cost $57,000.
Her Medicaid would only cover half the cost, making Alayza's Christmas wish near-impossible -- until Dr. Michael Samson stepped up.
Samson, a specialist with the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, surprised Rivera last month with word that an operation on her left eye was green-lighted.
The infirmary volunteered to pick up whatever bills weren't covered by Medicaid.
The Brooklyn woman underwent an extraordinary Dec. 10 procedure, one that gave her a 5-0/50 shot at regaining her eyesight.
Rivera first endured two types of chemotherapy to bring the uveitis under control.
'It was beautiful'
In two hours of delicate surgery, Samson separated her left eye's iris from the lens and used an ultrasound probe to liquefy the damaged lens.
Once the old lens was removed, an acrylic prosthetic was put in place -- along with the eye patch and gauze.
Rivera returned to the doctor's office the next day. When her doctor removed the bandages, she kept her eyes shut tight for a full 10 minutes, afraid of what she would -- or wouldn't -- see.
And then she peeked.
"It was beautiful," she recalled. "I saw his tie. I saw the computer. And then I realized, 'I'm going to get to see my kids today.'"
Dr. Vincente Diaz, who works with Samson, said Rivera let loose a scream of joy that echoed through their office.
"She was so emotional and overjoyed," he said. "It was a beautiful, beautiful moment."
There were more to come. Rivera took the subway alone for the first time in years, rushing to her Williamsburg home to gaze upon her daughter for the first time.
"It was amazing," she said. "It was like I was touching the stars and the clouds and the moon."
She then jumped into a cab to meet her older daughter at Public School 147. Principal Julia DeSalvo watched as tears flowed down Rivera's face when she looked at Alayza.
"She was just holding [Alayza's] face, and they were staring into each other's eyes," the principal said.
The most mundane parts of her daughters' lives are now revelations to Rivera.
"I watch them sleep," she said. "I watch them play. I bathed my 2-year-old for the first time."
After Christmas, Rivera plans a return to work -- she was a medical assistant before her eyes went bad.
She wants to buy a car and drive again. She wants to take her daughters to Disneyland -- "so I can see their faces light up," she explained.
And she still has surgery for her right eye. But first, Rivera plans a special family Christmas.
Daughter Alayza already knows what she's giving mom: A long hug. Rivera just wants to watch her girls unwrap their presents, check their stockings, eat their dinner.
"This is a Christmas miracle," she said. "They really happen. You have to believe."
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